Friday, December 26, 2008

Love Food, Hate Waste

I wasn't planning on blogging during the holiday but just had to share this website with anyone who's bothering to read. According to this morning's newspaper a local district council is promoting the site to help people not to buy too much food for Christmas or more importantly, not to throw it away at the end of the festive period. I've just had a little look and found some interesting recipes for using up leftovers. Cranberry chocolate brownies anyone?
Of course, this year, if you only found out about it through that newspaper article it's too late to save money or food waste, but for anyone who's faced with cooking for a bigger than usual group of people it's got a super calculator for how much meat and veg to buy. Maybe next year it'll be promoted earlier. It may come into its own as the recession deepens and more people turn to cooking for themselves rather than eating out or buying ready made meals.
Now back to that Christmas Holiday!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The last council related meeting of 2008 was this morning, looking at progress on the various scrutinies that are taking place as well as a brief discussion of some of the pressures that are looming on the council's budget in the next couple of years. When people think about the credit crunch they perhaps don't realise the impact it might have on council services. Fewer planning applications means lower income from the fees, but we still have to maintain the planning service. General belt tightening means fewer people bringing cars into town and paying parking fees, but we still have to maintain the car parks. More importantly and much more sadly, worries about jobs and household income mean more stress in families, more demand for help with housing, more family breakdown, more children needing foster homes, more health problems. These aren't things that worry most people until they're personally affected, but they are very real effects of the economic problems in the country. And they have to be dealt with by the council, the health professionals etc without any increase in funds.
All isn't doom and gloom, though. The sun shone for a goodly part of the day, the washing dried out on the line and I found the Christmas present I'd hidden almost too well. On top of that the skips were removed from the open space in front of 661 Yarm Rd and the pedestrian route between Stoney Bank and Yarm Bridge was cleared in time for Christmas.
So now the Christmas dinner ingredients are all safely bought, presents are wrapped and all that remains is to take down birthday cards and put up Christmas cards.
A very happy Christmas to one and all and my best wishes for Peace in 2009.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas is Coming

I love the final preparations for Christmas: the carol services, the Advent candles, the cards and greetings winging back and forth around the world. On Friday we had the Civic Carol Service in Stockton and the Mayor had bravely decided to start out of doors. So it was that at 1.30 quite a gathering could be found around Dodshon's fountain in the High Street. The Mayor and Mayoress of Thornaby were there, wearing the chains so recently returned to Thornaby, as well as a number of councillors and council officers. But more importantly, by the time the band struck up the first carol, quite a number of non-council people had braved the damp and cold to stand or sit and sing. Several people passing by stopped to join in for a few minutes including a lady who used to attend an English class I taught years ago. For the first time to my knowledge a "civic service" really reached out to the ordinary residents of the Borough in a way that didn't depend on special invitations. A brave choice and a right one from our Mayor, John Fletcher.
After 3 carols and some prayers we walked over to the Parish Church where even more people were waiting and there sang more carols, heard again the timeless story of the first Christmas and received the Peace Light - a reminder of the need for peace in the world and a sign that we can all do our bit. A light shared is a light that grows and spreads - it cannot be dimmed.
Then it was time to finish off the shopping and preparing the house for the arrival of grandchildren to celebrate a Christmas visit with us. This meant putting up the Christmas tree, usually a Christmas Eve activity, but done early to fit in with the festive mood of a family weekend. It was a joyful weekend with a gathering of nearly 20 of the family on Saturday - with ages ranging from 5 months to 91 years the house was alive with conversation and laughter. Presents were exchanged, news was shared and a good time was had by all.
Today was much quieter! Time to catch up on case work and bits that needed doing for the Fairtrade Directory which is now well under way at the publisher. There was even time to read the papers for tomorrow's committee meeting and mark up the questions to be asked. Council work continues right up till Christmas Eve, but the number of meetings reduces in this period as councillors and council officers take time off to to do what they want to do over the Christmas period.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Grumpy Sheep and other tales

My first task today was a totally enjoyable one - attending the Foundation stage Christmas performance at Durham Lane School. The Grumpy Sheep baaed and grumped around the field until the birth of Jesus, the joy of the shepherds and wise men and the singing of the stars cheered her up and she became the Very Smiley Sheep. Parents wiped away tears of pride, the children sang their hearts out and the staff breathed sighs of relief that everything worked on the day. One more bit of the right sort of Christmas preparation, away from the bustle of 50% off sales on the High Street.
There was time for a bit of casework before going off to Planning Committee where the plans for the new building for Stockton 6th Form College were being considered. There had been lots of work over a number of months to address problems in the original plans but at last all seemed to have been resolved and the plans were approved. Sadly, the architect thought that going for a Very Good BREEAM rating was a plus point. I told him that excellent is what needs to be aimed at to combat rising energy costs and climate change. So many developers don't seem to have got the idea of investing now to save in the future. Let's hope this particular one sees the light before the building is completed.
Tonight I should have been joining with a group of friends to write cards to prisoners of conscience and unjustly imprisoned people in countries across the world. Sadly, my cough has returned and although I've no other significant symptoms of anything infectious I decided not to risk it. I shall write my cards at home and miss out on the good company and the mulled wine.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Fairtrade Apprentices Set Out Their Stalls

Back in November I went to All Saints school in Ingleby Barwick for the start of their "Dragons Den meets the Fairtrade Apprentice" Day. Tonight was the finale - the successful groups set out their stalls and tried to make a profit by selling Fairtrade goods to parents and visitors. I was invited back to speak about the importance of Fairtrade.
A group of young students sang a song they'd written about making a difference by buying Fairtrade. Another group showed their skills with African drums and dance, which they'd practised on the day with the help of Melting Pot Arts. Yet more students performed extracts from dramas they'd produced during the day, stressing what a difference Fairtrade makes. At one point I was reminded of the opening line of "Little Women", a favourite book of mine as a child: "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents". At the end of their drama the workers got the best Christmas present possible - Fairtrade prices for their goods and fair working conditions.
I was impressed by the entrepreneurial skills of some of the teams. Buying Fairtrade ingredients and making Christmas gingerbread men to sell seemed to me to show a grasp of the value that can be added to goods. One or two teams had supplemented their offer by organic or ethically sourced goods where Fairtrade isn't yet available but they had clearly stated that on the stall. By the time I was leaving some stalls were selling out, the raffle had been won by a suitably supportive local resident, staff looked worn out and the students were still on a high. Well done All Saints, and I hope to be invited back when the school declares that it has achieved the goal of Fairtrade status.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Eaglescliffe Post Office

The Evening Gazette has picked up the story of the Post Office closure now, and the fact that over 4000 homes in the ward don't have a Post Office. About 20 people braved the cold wind on Friday afternoon to take part in a photo for the Gazette and to tell the reporter their tales of why they need an accessible post office. Yarm PO being overcrowded, difficulties with parking, problems with the buses all featured in their tales. One couple, unable to face the traffic queue and parking problem in Yarm had followed the Post Office's advice and gone to Ingleby Barwick. Once there they couldn't find the post office so they turned round and drove to Hartburn!
Meanwhile we're pursuing a couple of possible locations for a replacement though with little help from the Post Office.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Busy, busy

There's been a lot about Fairtrade in my diary this week, but the highlight was a visit to the Tristar Carbon Savers' meeting. Along with their commitment to saving on carbon emissions at work and at home they are interested in other ethical and environmental issues including Fairtrade. So along I went to tell them a bit about the work in the Borough and suggest ways they might get involved. My inbox has been fizzing ever since - they're so keen to come up with suggestions for Fairtrade Fortnight that we'll have a great time even if we only implement half of them. My difficulty is going to be to ensure that we only take on those things we can cope with. But watch this space for progress!
Today is the deadline for sending in the editorial items for the Borough Fairtrade directory which is to be published in February. It's the first time we've done a glossy, professional one and trying to make sure that catering establishments send us the right material on time has been an interesting exercise. It's coming in now and I'm hopeful that I'll get it all out on time tonight.
Wednesday evening and Thursday were taken up with the appointment process for the new Chief Executive of Stockton. There was a very strong field which we whittled down to a short list of 4 over a period of more than a month. They spent Wednesday being grilled by members, stakeholders including the local press, the PCT, Fire & Rescue, Police and voluntary bodies and having a long session with the Leader of the Council. Then all members were invited to meet them informally over a buffet supper. That gave an opportunity to see how they coped with meeting people for the first time without a structured agenda and proved very interesting.
Yesterday we had the formal interviews and the final decision to make. It wasn't easy but in the end I believe we chose the best for Stockton. The decision was unanimous, which isn't a bad sign when every party on the council except for the Billingham Independents were represented and they'd had their chance to feed into the process the day before. This isn't the place to express my views on the unsuccessful individuals. Suffice to say that it was a long tough process and we're all confident that we've got a good man in place. The remainder of the Cabinet who were not part of the interview panel have to ratify our decision but I can't see that they'll object.
So, congratulations Neil. It's very satisfying that we have such high calibre officers in the council who can stand against the best applicants in the country and win. It's probably very wicked of me to say the name before the official press release goes out but such things can be notoriously slow and all council members have been notified this morning. I'm sure there have been some comments over the breakfast table and that word is spreading fast especially as it wasn't marked confidential.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Another local service bites the dust

A day after the Post Office closed its host for several years, Martins Newsagent, also closed. It's fallen victim to the inexorable rise of the supermarket as stockist of newspapers, magazines, chocolate bars and birthday cards. But they don't stock the variety of magazines, nor do they take special orders, nor deliver them to the door in all weathers. Unfortunately our paper this morning was delivered to the wrong door so I didn't even get chance to say thank you to the boy who has faithfully delivered it over the past year. I'm not sure where I'll get my paper now, or even if I'll get one at all as my two main times for looking at it are first thing in the morning before I'm dressed and last thing at night before sleep.
I spoke with more of the traders on Stockton market today and heard that they hadn't enjoyed the Christmas market at all. They did have constructive suggestions for improvement though and I've passed them on to our party representative on the Markets Forum so that they can be properly discussed at the next meeting. There are definitely some lessons to be learned if it's to be a better event next year. And that includes making sure the publicity is clear - these people told me that customers weren't expecting the usual market stalls but were searching for the "Christmas stalls".

Friday, December 05, 2008

Eaglescliffe Post Office RIP

Our Post Office closed today at lunch time and although Post Office Counters say it's only temporary till someone else takes it on in suitable premises the options for that are few and diminishing. So residents are faced with the choice of travelling down to Yarm which is already busy and has long queues or into Stockton High St which always seems to have huge queues or driving (if they can) to one of the more outlying offices. It's hard on those pensioners who have a Post Office Card account. It's hard on people who need to have something weighed to get the correct stamps. These are things which the supermarkets don't offer, yet their sales of newspapers and sweets have put the newsagent out of business. Is it the fault of the supermarket or of the shoppers who choose to shop there? I leave it to you to apportion blame. Either way, we've lost our post office and the supermarkets aren't interested in giving up some of their space to accommodate one.
If by any remote chance someone reading this would like to know more about how to take over this successful Post Office the information is available on line or? Post Office doesn't actually give any other way of applying, and just like when the Station Rd office was being closed, it only seems to advertise on the website. It took me almost 5 minutes to find the relevant site so no-one's likely to spot the advert by mistake! Service to the community? I think not.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Partnership Working

Today saw a good example of partnership in action. Earlier in the year Stockton Council decided, much to my surprise, that a small amount of money would be allocated in the Western Area to help with employment related issues. We were told that we could be quite creative in how we handled it but it needs to be spent by the spring of 2011. The Western Area Partnership Board set up a working group to make some recommendations - two Borough Councillors representing the 2 complete wards in the Area, a Parish councillor with experience of representing the community for many years on panels relating to health matters, and a community member representing a group which spans the whole area.
The group was supported by officers from Stockton Borough Council who have a lot of experience of handling funding across the Borough. The second meeting was yesterday and thanks to an idea taken from another area we came up with what we hope will be a really useful way of working in our area, supporting people who are starting to struggle with debts including mortgage payments but also the debts incurred probably by trying to have the same kind of family Christmas they had last year even though this year money is tight. By all sitting round the table and talking frankly about the area in which we live and the problems that some people will experience over the coming years of the recession we were able to leave party politics and cross-community issues to one side and come up with a really inclusive plan.
When I put it to the full board at last night's meeting it was welcomed by all, including those from villages which sometimes struggle to have their voice heard at Borough level. So the officers will now put together invitations to tender for the project and we move forward in January all being well.
At the same board meeting we heard of a rare success story from the Youth Service, with the youth club workers in Eaglescliffe going out to talk to older teenagers who didn't attend the youth club with the result that they're now part of the club and applying for funding from the "Playing Out" fund to access sports training and encourage other young people to take part in active play. The number attending has almost doubled - a real achievement especially as this is young people wanting to take an active part instead of hanging around outside. Well done Chris and others. There was also good news about the numbers attending the other clubs in the Area so perhaps we're going through that part of the cycle where young people want to belong to clubs, or perhaps the clubs are now providing the sort of activities the young people want. Only time will tell.